Fix the Schools ... Just Not My School

Why just talking about consolidation can be a lesson in toxicity


Published:

Illustration by Mark Allen Miller

There's an old joke among school administrators:

"What do you call a school superintendent who merges two schools?"

"Unemployed."

That might not get a lot of laughs at the comedy club, but it sure gets some nervous chuckles in school offices around Michigan. We've seen consolidations at the local level. Bloomfield Hills went from two high schools to one. Detroit has shuttered dozens of schools, and more are likely to come.

None of these decisions were easy, and all were fraught with political peril and citizen angst. Nobody wants to close buildings, but years of tight budgets have forced many districts to the breaking point.

In extreme cases, like Inkster and Saginaw's Buena Vista, entire school districts can be dissolved as a result of insolvency. This is where we are. Shutting down whole districts.

Regardless of who's responsible for the problems in those districts, is it a good idea to dissolve them? Not only do you risk destroying the neighborhood schools, you leave residents on the hook for the accumulated debt. In effect, residents could end up paying for schools that no longer exist. Won't that look good on a home sale brochure?

So what's the answer? Should surrounding communities take students from neighboring towns to make sure they get an opportunity to go to school? Or is it better for neighboring communities to pool some resources to avoid having to close a school in the first place?

Is greater cooperation, or — gasp — district consolidation the answer? It might well be, according to Michigan School Superintendent Mike Flanagan. Flanagan recently floated an idea to consolidate many services at the county level. Things like buses and food service, payroll services, and more. He stopped short of calling for full countywide school districts, fully aware of the political risks involved.

Flanagan hopes that consolidation of some services might prevent him from having to dissolve districts with financial problems — as was spelled out in a new law signed by Governor Rick Snyder in July. Yet Flanagan says he underestimated the reaction to his more modest proposal. His proposal was barely 12 hours old when the criticism started rolling in. "I don't have the final answer on [whether countywide consolidation of services] will work," Flanagan said. "But the new law signed [July 2] calls for me to dissolve districts. That's capital punishment. That's as extreme as you can get … and yet there's more folks freaking out ... about consolidation."

So why are schools so hard to change? Even as budgets are tightened and programs are cut, we resist any change that might diminish the autonomy of our schools. More than almost anything, we allow our schools to define who we are as a community. The quality of our schools is a direct reflection of the quality of its residents, and that's also reflected in our property values. If our schools are excellent, it's a point of pride, and the first thing we point to when marketing our town to potential new residents. If the schools aren't performing, we tell ourselves that no test data can ever really show what's happening in our classrooms.

When a school or even a whole district is failing, like Buena Vista or Inkster, well, at least it's not our school. Those towns must have done something wrong. We're OK with that failure, as long as it doesn't affect us directly.

But no district is untouchable anymore. Even the best-performing and highest-funded school districts have been forced to make cuts. The system we have is at best inefficient. We have more than 500 school districts in Michigan. We have more than 90 school districts serving fewer than 500 students each. The city of St. Clair Shores has three separate school districts. Warren has five.

I've asked a number of residents in these towns if they know why they have so many districts, or what the differences really are. The most common response: That's the way we've always done it. In almost all cases, they say they like all the districts in their town. When I ask about consolidation, most of them are opposed, even if it saves money.

Want a good way to ruin the next block party? Talk to your neighbors about school consolidation.

But why is the topic so toxic? Probably because it's one of those conversations that tends to focus not on the potential gains, but rather on the potential losses. Anything that suggests the sharing of services or administration is almost instantly viewed as suspect — as something that could damage the schools — and with it, the school's reputation. It's seen as something that destroys the advantage that comes from having a high-performing school district in your town. Anything perceived as diluting that advantage will be fiercely opposed.

Governor Snyder got a lesson in the power of the status quo early in his term. His 2011 proposal to force school districts to participate in the Schools of Choice program was quietly snuffed out by legislators who weren't interested in kicking the hornets nest.

So here we are, with the same system and the same problems. Will the response from Lansing be any different this time?

Flanagan hopes so. "I don't want to do any more Buena Vistas … we could save tens of millions of dollars (with the hybrid countywide plan). I don't think Buena Vista would be in this situation. If we had a countywide system … you would have the ups and downs of enrollments being absorbed by the county. You wouldn't suddenly have this situation overnight where a district can't make payroll."

Flanagan himself says he doesn't have the final answer on whether some form of countywide school control will fix things. But with more than 50 school districts running deficits this year, he says it's time to at least explore some ideas.

How hard can it be? All you have to do is come up with a plan that consolidates services, improves student and teacher performance, better equalizes per-pupil funding, minimizes the closing of neighborhood schools in cities like Detroit, and gives the legislators the protection they'll need from special-interest groups and their campaign war chests, while allowing the Grosse Pointes, Northvilles, and Birminghams of the world to still feel that they have something special.

OK then. Should we just plan on rerunning this column again next year?

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